A UK health minister has urged the public to avoid “any risky activity” during ambulance staff walkouts in England and Wales on Wednesday, as hospital trusts reported a surge in critical incidents within the NHS.
More than 10,000 ambulance workers affiliated with the country’s three main trade unions — GMB, Unite and Unison — are expected to go on strike this week due to concerns over pay and working conditions.
The move comes as thousands of nurses, represented by the Royal College of Nursing, started their 12-hour strike action across England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Tuesday.
Health secretary Steve Barclay is expected to meet the ambulance unions on Tuesday, when he will urge workers to honour their commitment to respond to life-threatening emergency calls, amid warnings that patients with urgent conditions will have to make their own way to hospital.
In light of the disruption, Will Quince, minister of state for health and secondary care, said that contingency plans were in place, including the use of 750 armed forces personnel, while calling on the public to take precautions.
“Where people are planning any risky activity, I would strongly encourage them not to do so because there will be disruption on the day,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“But the key thing is for anybody that does have an emergency situation, or a life-threatening situation, that they continue to call 999 as they would have done previously, and for any other situation, NHS 111 or NHS 111 online,” he added.
Meanwhile, several ambulance trusts around the country declared “critical incidents”, a status invoked when services are at risk of being overwhelmed by patients.
London Ambulance Service registered what it termed “a business continuity incident” and said it was “prioritising our sickest and most severely injured patients”.
The North East Ambulance service, based in Newcastle, also announced a critical incident. More than 200 people had faced “significant delays” in ambulances arriving due partly to staff shortages, it said.
Speaking on Tuesday at the health and social care select committee, Julian Redhead, national clinical director for urgent and emergency care at NHS England, argued that even before strike action had begun, demand on emergency services had increased by “phenomenal degrees”.
John Martin, president of the College of Paramedics, warned that delays to emergency services were likely to deteriorate as a result of the industrial dispute. “There are lots of patients waiting at the moment for an ambulance response,” he said. “On Wednesday, even with the derogations, that’s likely to be worse.”
But Rachel Harrison, GMB’s national secretary, defended the timing of ambulance worker walkouts, arguing that staff were experiencing “stress, burnout, exhaustion”. She accused the government of “hiding” behind the independent pay body’s recommendations that more than one million NHS workers receive a £1,400 salary increase.
“What we’re calling on the government to do is talk to us, make us an offer that we can take to our members because our members don’t want to strike,” she added. “They’ve been forced into this.”